Conservative Party Conference 2021
Will boosterism of #BuildBackBetter and Boris Johnson be the key to the ongoing and sustained popularity of the Government, or does it leave voters wanting more?
Just weeks after a manifesto-breaking tax increase, a wide-ranging reshuffle and a ‘will they, won’t they’ game of brinkmanship over vaccine passports, it was unclear whether the dominant theme of Conference would be the party line or the heckles of sidelined voices from the fringes.
The palpable joy of Conservative Party activists and MPs at holding their first in-person conference since winning an 80-seat majority was laid bare for all to see in Manchester.
Following years of dissent ringing loudly from the fringes – sometimes more loudly than the voices of Government from the main stage – a lack of hordes queuing to witness drama was noticeable. Some might argue that’s because those previously causing the drama now have seats around the Cabinet table; while that’s partly true, on the ground there was a sense the party was united. The conference was much more upbeat than many had anticipated and there’s an optimism the party is on track to win the next election.
One person who did trigger hordes of queues, though, was increasingly popular new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss with a (strikingly) younger crowd of activists following her from reception to reception desperately seeking a selfie with the woman of the hour. Equally omnipresent was a soft Australian twang. Fresh from the announcement of a free trade deal with Australia and AUKUS, the new security pact between, it was clear the UK-Australia love is set to continue for years to come with incumbent Australian High Commissioner to the UK, George Brandis, and his predecessor, Alexander Downer, appearing on more fringes than some Ministers.
Key themes on the fringes:
- Closing the Skills Gap,
- What is Levelling Up and how does Government deliver it?
- Building the homes that the country needs, and
- Delivering Net Zero without leaving people behind.
A consistent theme across all sectors was the need to boost skilled employment and create more opportunities for people in left behind towns and cities to get good, well-paying jobs in their local communities. There was also a tacit acknowledgement that the Government cannot deliver on its commitments – building back better, reaching Net Zero, reforming social care, levelling up, more housing – without a very real and driven push toward addressing the widening skills gap. Ultimately, this is a cross-Government challenge, and many Departments will have to work together and pull policy levers to future proof our workforce.
In his first major address as Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi made clear the Government wants no distinction between qualifications but instead wants to focus on attainment and celebrating achievement with a desire to see T-Levels held in the same esteem as A-Levels. Working in partnership with the DWP, there’s an acknowledgement of the need to scale up the number of and opportunities for apprenticeships and other vocational routes into education. For some newly elected MPs from traditionally industrial communities, it’s not just about attainment – it’s about providing an opportunity to learn and ultimately work in your hometown and ensuring that local needs are met locally.
The challenge for the Government will be harnessing this desire and will and working to deliver genuine opportunities and plug the skills gap without expecting the market to do it all at a time where there’s not as clear an incentive as there once was.
When Michael Gove was put in charge of delivering one of the Government’s key manifesto commitments, Levelling Up, there was hope that a clear definition might soon follow. If anything, there’s a sense that it has becoming increasingly more nebulous a concept and more ill-defined than before as the Government realised its initial plan had limitations, was short-termist and that, quite simply, there isn’t enough money to go around. That said, with Gove’s track record of delivery – and reform – in Government, it may be a case of one step back, two steps forward as he seeks to define levelling up, and then deliver it. By taking a step back, Gove can work with with Conservative MPs, Metro Mayors and councils to ensure a fundamental tenet of the 2019 Manifesto is being seen to be delivered before the next election.
Originally viewed as a successor to George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, the Government seems to be rowing back from focusing on the North and the Midlands to include the South West, the South East and London. The challenge for the Government is that this creates an ‘us and them’ battle amongst the regions of England, as well as the Home Nations who all want a piece of the pie. MPs are already engaging in a fierce battle seeing not the Opposition as their rival, but their own colleagues in the fight for investment.
In recent years the Conservative Party has taken a step sideways on devolution in England, but in an attempt to deliver something tangible, calls to give existing Mayors greater power and to put more power back into local communities will likely by heeded.
One element of Levelling Up is, according to the Levelling Up Secretary, restoring local pride. This was a theme that rang out across conference with new Minister Neil O’Brien touching on it and the Education Secretary imploring that we should never let anybody tell us that Britain isn’t great. Gove talking about local pride shows that Levelling Up is about more than the cities and urban conurbations – it’s about towns and villages too. It’s an acknowledgement that developing towns, which are well connected to growing and strong cities, will play a major role in driving economic growth and delivering Levelling Up.
The Secretary of state must address one of the key tensions at the core of Levelling Up: is it increased productivity in key Northern and Midlands cities, or is it providing a level of connectivity to those cities and their services so that people don’t have to leave towns and villages?
Beyond the UK’s departure from the EU, few policy issues have created as much tension in recent years in the Conservative Party as planning reform and a commitment to building more houses. While it has not been said clearly and obviously, on the fringes you couldn’t help but get the sense there is a nexus between Levelling Up, planning reform and delivering more housing. The Government is proud of its record in building more homes – in 2019/20, more homes were built than in any of the previous 30 years. A clear message from supporters was their frustration with excessive development, especially on greenfield land.
While the Government has hit pause on the planning reforms that some argue are critical to meet the Conservative Party’s housing commitments, there was still an appetite for reform. There is also a sense that reform will likely be tweaked to factor in political drivers, not just economic, with two outcomes: more homes delivered in left behind towns and a guarding of the greenbelt in the Home Counties.
Recognising where some of the dissent has stemmed from, Housing Minister Chris Pincher said that a key part of reform of the planning system for him must be about making it more accessible, digitised and open and transparent so that people are engaged and aware, rather than sitting on the sidelines frustrated.
For years, many have argued that Governments can do more to address the challenges for young people getting on the housing ladder than just building more houses – and they’re right. There’s a range of supply side levers the Government can consider including a land value tax or greater support for first time buyers in attaining a mortgage. . There’s also a recognition that different types of homes are needed and that, coupled with reform of social care, there are solutions which allow empty nesters to downsize to more comfortable or appropriate singe-story living, opening up the larger home market to young families.
The 2019 Conservative Party Conference marked a significant shift in the acceptance of climate policy, and the need for Government action, for activists and supporters; 2021 was focused on how to achieve this, what the opportunities can be and how to communicate this with the public. That’s not to say that there doesn’t remain some opposition; however, the opposition to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is now cultural and focused on jobs and the cost to consumers.
Increasingly in recently months it’s been recognised that the most challenging area of decarbonisation – but most in need of action – is housing and how people heat their homes. There’s a sense that Government is open to new technologies but, with the race every accelerating, remains likely to back what it knows can be delivered at scale and as cost-effectively as possible.
Red Wall MPs that represent industrial towns recognise the huge potential for their communities, linking reaching Net Zero to the Government’s commitment to levelling up. Red Wall MPs want the conversation about reaching Net Zero to pivot to new opportunities and the new industrial revolution. There must be a focus on creating skilled, green jobs and making sure that we support people transitioning from jobs that will, soon, no longer exist.
What is increasingly being heard, though, is that the conversation needs to change. Many on the fringes, including MPs, journalists and industry experts, are calling for consumers – especially those who can least afford new technologies – to be taken on a journey, rather than being told what they must do, and be forced to shoulder a more disproportionate burden, by people who can afford change. In an attempt to strike the right tone with Millennials and Generation Z, one MP argued the messaging should be about upgrading to the latest heating technology in the same way you upgrade to the latest iPhone.
The Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review are to be handed down later this month. Last Tuesday saw Dan Walker remark on BBC Breakfast that the Political Correspondent Adam Fleming was warming the Prime Minister’s seat immediately before an interview; with a keynote address full of jokes, but perhaps lacking a punchline, the question is: was Boris warming Rishi’s big announcement seat ahead of the Budget?
Overall, despite some darkening political clouds, the mood was buoyant, and people were clearly happy to see friends and the wider political network they haven’t seen in nearly two years. While Conference was, largely, policy-lite compared to Labour’s, the Government – and the Prime Minister – delivered a rallying call that his base loved. Yes, it was a vision made of motherhood statements, but it was a vision that – following the reshuffle – helped the Conservative Party set out its stall to voters and fired the metaphoric starter’s gun for the next election.